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You Are What You Eat


by Eric R. Dursteler

In recent years, the expression “you are what you eat” has been everywhere; it has graced book titles, magazine articles, television series, radio programs, and electronic media outlets. Most of these popular contemporary references address issues related to diet, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles. For these disparate sources, the sound bite encapsulates the notion that our health, happiness, and well-being are inseparably interconnected with what we eat.

The adage is not new; however, its roots trace back to one of the earliest and most influential commentators on food: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who was, perhaps not surprisingly, French. In 1825, the Parisian politician, judge, and all-around bon vivant published a book entitled Physiologie du goût : Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante, translated into English as the Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Despite its unwieldy title, the book was hugely successful, and represents the first real attempt to reflect on food in a serious and systematic fashion. Among many memorable bons mots, the most famous is Brillat-Savarin’s statement, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” or “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” from which derives our modern abridgment “you are what you eat.”

In making this assertion, Brillat-Savarin was not issuing a manifesto about healthy eating or trying to market a new diet. Indeed, given his intense appreciation of food, he would likely have been quite surprised to see the ways in which contemporary culture has appropriated his aphorism. What Brillat-Savarin was suggesting was something much more profound, namely the tight link in human cultures between food and identity.

The interrelation between food and identity that Brillat-Savarin sensed intuitively has been developed more systematically by twentieth-century anthropologists, historians, and literary scholars. They have shown that because of the biological imperative that we eat and drink every day, as well as the central role that the acquisition, production, and consumption of food plays in our existence, food functions as a potent social, religious, gender, political, and cultural marker. The sum total of our food-related activities, what scholars have termed “foodways,” form a sort of culinary identity that serves to both define and to differentiate: those who eat similar foods are deemed trustworthy and safe, while those whose foods differ are viewed with suspicion and revulsion. This notion is not new, of course. From the earliest times, food has marked human culture. In classical antiquity, Greeks and Romans used foodways as a means to differentiate between sedentary, agriculture-based societies like their own, which they of course considered civilized, and more pastoral and nomadic cultures that existed on the periphery of their urban-centered civilizations, which they categorized as barbarian. The historian Herodotus, for example, described non-Greek people as “eaters of meat and drinkers of milk,” in contrast to Greeks who ate bread and drank wine. Along with the olive, wheat, and the grape comprise what scholars have called the triad of Mediterranean foods, and in classical times, they were considered the core foods that marked civilization from barbarity. In describing the Gauls, who inhabited modern-day France and other parts of northern Europe, classical writers such as the Greek geographer Strabo commented at length on their foodways. The Gauls slept and ate on the ground and consumed large quantities of meat, which they devoured “like lions . . . grasping whole joints with both hands and biting them off the bone.” The Roman historian Tacitus similarly wrote of the northern European Fenni, that they ate “the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any kind of animal whatever.” The emphasis on raw meat and plant material was a way to dehumanize what Greeks and Romans considered uncivilized peoples by equating their food habits with those of animals. Among classical writers, the emphasis on meat, whether domesticated or wild, over bread was directly connected to a savage, uncivilized state: animal flesh was the food of brutes. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss showed, the chemical transformation of food through cooking has represented for many cultures a symbolic dividing line between nature and culture. In their organic, unaltered condition, raw foods are the sustenance of wild animals, in contrast to cooked food, which through human ingenuity is transformed from its natural state. Cooking, in other words, sets humans off from animals, and by extension, civilized peoples from barbarians. The ancient Israelites provide another example of the ways that food functioned to define and preserve a distinct cultural identity. The Mosaic law presented an elaborate and diverse system of practices meant to maintain the unique identity of the comparatively small Israelite tribes in the midst of the much larger and more dominant cultures of the ancient near east. A central component of this system is a very detailed dietary code intended to serve both as a daily reminder to the Israelites and a clear line of demarcation to their neighbors of the differences between them. Over time, these prohibitions evolved into the more elaborate system of kashrut (from the Hebrew root for fit, proper, or correct), practiced in one form or another by many Jews today. Kashrut provides detailed guidelines on what can and cannot be eaten, how animals must be slaughtered, and how foods were to be prepared. The efficacy of these food markers is evident in the familiar narrative of Daniel who, when faced with assimilation into the triumphant Babylonian hierarchy, asserted his Jewish identity by refusing to transgress the Mosaic dietary code.


In a more modern context, it is illuminating to think about the Word of Wisdom observed by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a dietary code functioning similarly to the Jewish practice of kashrut. While generally its core prohibitions of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea are interpreted primarily as an inspired code of health, the proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom are also one of the most powerful boundary markers for Latter-day Saints in defining and differentiating themselves from broader contemporary society. The nexus of food and identity was not unique to the ancient world, indeed classical precedents profoundly marked medieval and early modern views of food. This is evident in the age’s voluminous travel literature. Then as now, travelers were led by their stomachs: they regularly commented on the varied array of foods they consumed, and they used foodways as a familiar way to order unfamiliar cultures and peoples they encountered. Travelers, adventurers, and colonial officials in the New World commented extensively on the continent’s many new and alien foodways. They were particularly fascinated by reports of native cannibalism—the ultimate culinary act of savagery. This was a very common trope in the literature of the early modern period, though recent scholarship has called into question the veracity of many of these tales. Whether it was practiced or not, reports of cannibalism were only the most extreme example of the ways Europeans used indigenous foodways as a means to assert their difference from and moral superiority to the people they colonized.

In comparison to the Americas, many more travelers stayed closer to home, visiting other regions of Europe and the Mediterranean. Particularly in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, travelers were fascinated by Muslim foodways and used these to produce culinary geographies that inscribed boundaries often less a product of religious than cultural differences and that often closely paralleled their classical Greek and Roman precedents. Travelers made much of the “Turks’” heavy consumption of poorly prepared meat, their insipid bread, and what the English traveler Henry Blount described as their “outrageous drunkenness.” Similar to their Christian European contemporaries, Ottoman travelers such as Evliya Çelebi, whose Seyahatname (Book of Travels) is one of the great works of seventeenth century Ottoman literature, were also influenced by classical Greco-Roman and Arab authors in employing foodways as a means to demarcate infidelity and barbarity in their own travels. As in classical times, in the medieval and early modern world, who you were was defined, at least in part, by what you ate and how you ate it. The traditional world of the post-classical era was fundamentally altered during the great technological, political, and social transformations of the nineteenth century. The cultural link between food and identity remained but underwent a significant metamorphosis in response to the rise of new nationalist ideas and the accompanying dramatic redrawing of the European map along stark national lines. Nineteenth-century nationalists argued that nations were primordial cultural communities that, following the French Revolution, began to naturally and inevitably take political form as nation-states. Recent scholarship has shown nations are social constructions or “imagined communities” with roots reaching back only into the eighteenth century. The nation-states of the modern era were a product not of natural but historical forces that cobbled together disparate peoples into the new political form of the nation-state. To bind these newly minted polities together, it was necessary to expend significant effort to create structures and narratives of the nation—as Massimo d’Azeglio, a key figure in the unification of Italy, allegedly said, “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.” This process included creating national languages, national histories, and artistic legacies exhibited in new national museums, national literatures, and not surprisingly, national cuisines.

The role of food in manufacturing national identity is evident in Italy, which had historically been politically and culturally carved into constituent parts with powerful local identities, and was only effectively united by military force in the second half of the nineteenth century. The great diversity of Italy at unification is underlined by the fact that only 2 percent of Italians spoke the Tuscan dialect that was elevated to the status of national language. Italian diversity is also apparent in the peninsula’s great culinary variety. While today we consider pasta the quintessential Italian food, at unification, wheat bread and pasta were more common to the south, while corn in the form of polenta was eaten in northeastern Italy and rice in the northwest. Bread made of chestnut flour was also common in the country’s many impoverished regions. It was not until the twentieth century that pasta came to capture the Italian culinary imagination and became widely consumed, though in ways heavily adapted to local tastes. Similarly, unified Italy was divided along the so-called butter/oil line that ran along the border of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. North of the line the principle fat used in cooking was butter, while olive oil was preferred to the south. Beyond these broad differences, Italy’s culinary landscape was characterized by tremendous local diversity in basic foodstuffs and preparations. In the aftermath of unification, the cultural divide between the north and south became a recurring theme in the struggle to unite the nation, and food differences were seen as an essential aspect of what set the regions apart. Successive Italian governments instituted wide-ranging policies to address food issues, particularly endemic food shortages and malnutrition. Their limited success is testified to by the massive economic-driven emigration dominating Italy’s first century. These policies gradually moved Italians toward a somewhat more common, shared national cuisine that to a degree transcended powerful regional culinary identities. This process was also influenced by the 1891 publication of the first national cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di angier bene (The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well), whose author, Pellegrino Artusi, compiled recipes from Italy’s diverse regional foodways in an attempt to establish the parameters of an Italian national cuisine. In the end, these efforts were only minimally successful, as indeed has been the attempt to make “Italians” out of Italy’s diverse regional populations. This is apparent in the culinary variety still characterizing Italy today. As the author of one of the most popular contemporary cookbooks of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan, has observed, “The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that as such it doesn’t actually exist.” Indeed, it is a reasonable question to ask to what degree the notion of a national cuisine is a useful way to understand the complex culinary cultures of any European state.


The significance of food in the politics of identity is not a curious artifact of the past; the issue informs current political debates in ways that underline the continued importance of food in demarcating boundaries. This is evident in contemporary Europe where battles over the highly politicized issues of immigration and religion are in part being fought in the market and at the dinner table. While migration has always been an important force in Europe, recent years have seen a significant growth in both legal and illegal immigration. In 2010, there were more than 47 million immigrants in the European Union countries, out of a population of just over 500 million. Over 75 percent of these immigrants lived in five countries: Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. In France, there are almost 7 million immigrants in a population of 65 million, and immigrants in Germany number almost 10 million out of a total population of 82. The actual number of immigrants in Europe is certainly much higher, as significant numbers go uncounted. Not only the total number, but also the rate of immigration in the past decade has been quite dramatic. For example, in Italy legal immigrant numbers have gone from 1.5 million in 2003 to 4.5 million in 2011. For a country historically a source of net out-migration, this transformation has had a profound social, economic, and political impact. Because a significant percentage of immigrants come from Islamic countries, including Turkey, Albania, Morocco, and Algeria, the immigration debate in Europe has also been tightly linked to broader issues such as terrorism, Turkey’s accession to the EU, and the place of Islam in contemporary society. These issues are almost obsessively parsed in the halls of political power, the media, cafés, and homes. The conversation is often incendiary and far-right political parties throughout Europe, including the regionalist Lega Nord in Italy, have made immigration and opposition to the spread of Islam pillars of their political platforms. These parties have progressively moved from the political margins and have experienced a growth in power paralleling the rise in immigrant numbers. The debate over immigration is also being fought on the culinary battlefields of Europe. In 2008, the town council of the lovely central Italian city of Lucca passed legislation banning any so-called “ethnic” food outlets from being opened in the historic center. The objective, according to city officials, was to protect “the culinary patrimony of the town.”

Lucca’s action ignited a heated national debate, particularly when other cities, including Bergamo in Lombardy, Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany, Cittadella in the Veneto, and most notably, Italy’s financial capital of Milan, enacted similar legislation. Luca Zaia, the Italian Minister of Agriculture at the time of Lucca’s ban, and a member of the Lega Nord, strongly supported the actions, stating: “We stand for tradition and the safeguarding of our culture.” He also defiantly asserted that he had never eaten a kebab, stating: “I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto. I even refuse to eat pineapple.” For Zaia, eating was a political act: to eat a kebab or a pineapple was to reject his culinary heritage, though revealingly not his Italian but his regional identity. Officials in the cities passing the legislation repeatedly insisted the measures “target[ed] McDonald’s as much as kebab restaurants,” and their intent was “to safeguard and appreciate our land and our cuisine.” It was patently clear to many observers that the movement was part of a burgeoning xenophobia directed at the growing immigrant minority in Italy, particularly Muslim immigrants. One Italian newspaper described the campaign as “culinary ethnic cleansing,” while another called it a new “crusade against the Saracens.” The actions of these politicians and other European culinary warriors evidence a paradox. On the one hand, they clearly understand the power of food symbolism in fractious contemporary political issues. By framing their political agendas in terms of defending Italian cuisine and culture, they can mobilize significant popular support among people who might otherwise be uncomfortable with their more extreme political positions. On the other hand, these laws attempting to defend the culinary patrimony of Italy overlook the very diversity that is the historical heart of Italian cuisine. This point is driven home by Vittorio Castellani, an Italian celebrity chef and food writer, who responded to the spate of anti-kebab legislation by noting there is no cuisine “that does not come from mixing techniques, products, and tastes from cultures that have met and mingled over time.” This is true of an iconic Italian dish like spaghetti with tomato sauce, which is a byproduct of culinary miscegenation. Dried pasta was introduced into Italy from the Arab world in the Middle Ages, and tomatoes originated in Peru and were only incorporated into Italian cuisine beginning in the eighteenth century. The mobilization of food as a weapon in current political debates is not limited to Italy. In France several years ago, members of a far-right nationalist movement began serving food to Paris’ homeless and downtrodden. This seemingly charitable act was intended as a political statement against immigration, Islam, and multiculturalism. The simple meal included bread, cheese, and a glass of wine. The centerpiece of what was described as a “European solidarity feast” was a hot bowl of “identity soup.” This was a hearty, traditional French soup whose key ingredient was pork—smoked bacon, sausage, and pigs’ ears, feet, and tails. The group’s motto was “help our own before others,” and the “others” they targeted were poor Muslim immigrants whose religious tradition forbids the consumption of pork.


While these Italian and French examples may seem fairly benign, even silly, examples of political theatre, the issues at their heart can take on a much more violent form. This was evident in the recent breakup of a neo-Nazi extremist cell in Germany that had terrorized immigrant communities for over a decade. Among their numerous acts of violence, the members were responsible for what were dubbed the kebab murders, in which eight immigrant and German-born Turkish proprietors of kebab shops and ethnic food stores were murdered over the course of fourteen years. Troubling evidence has emerged linking the murderers to the far-right National Democratic Party, and perhaps even German intelligence services that were at best inept but more clearly negligent in solving the extended crime spree. Returning to our point of departure, it is clear Jean Anthelme Savarin-Brillat was onto something when he penned the phrase ”tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Whether we look at classical Roman stereotypes of the food of barbaric German tribes, early modern travelers’ misinformed descriptions of American cannibalism and Ottoman bad bread, nationalists efforts to manufacture an Italian cuisine, or misguided contemporary attempts to defend Europe from the kebab, food is unmistakably a unique and potent means of manufacturing and preserving identity.

Dursteler, an associate professor of history at BYU, is a former Fulbright fellow, NEH fellow, and in 2006–07, he was a fellow of the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. His research interests are the early modern Mediterranean, identity, conversion, and the history of food. His first book was Venetians in Constantinople: Nation, Identity and Coexistence in the Early Modern Mediterranean (2006) and a Turkish translation will be published in 2011. His second book, Renegade Women: Gender, Identity and Boundaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean, was published in 2011. He is the editor of the News on the Rialto and book review editor for the Journal of Early Modern History. He received a BA and MA from BYU and an MA and a PhD from Brown University. Dursteler and his wife, Whitney, are the parents of three children.